Year In Review: Science Stories Of 2010

From the Gulf oil spill and the earthquake in Haiti to the creation of synthetic life and the Icelandic volcano eruption, a lot of science stories made headlines in 2010. Science writers Ron Cowen, Robin Lloyd, Andrew Revkin and Paul Raeburn join Ira Flatow to discuss the year's top stories in science.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

What will you remember about 2010? Will you remember the oil rig that exploded and spilled crude oil into the Gulf for almost three months? I'm sure you won't forget that one. What about the volcano with that unpronounceable name - 10 trivia points - that erupted in Iceland?

What about 2010 as being the hottest year on record, just as it ended with the biggest blizzard in decades, not to mention the flooding out West? Yeah, there's a lot of science stories, a lot going on in science this year.

It was a year of looking at planets close by, planets far away. We also completed the first comprehensive census of marine life here on Earth. What do you think should have been the biggest science story of the year? Give us a call, 1-800-989-8255. Or tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I.

We've got a panel of science writers here who are going to give us their own opinions and tell us what they think were the biggest science stories or maybe non-stories, they shouldn't have been science stories this year.

Let me introduce them. Ron Cowen is astronomy writer for Science News, that's sciencenews.org, joining us from our studios in Washington, D.C. Welcome back.

Mr. RON COWEN (Astronomy Writer, Science News): Thanks, Ira, hi.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Robin Lloyd is news editor online for Scientific American, and she joins us from Vermont. Sorry to interrupt your vacation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROBIN LLOYD (Online News Editor, Scientific American): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Paul Raeburn, you know Paul. He's biology and medical writer for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at MIT. He's author of the forthcoming book "Why Fathers Matter," and he joins us here in our studios. Good to see you as always, Paul.

Mr. PAUL RAEBURN (Author, "Why Fathers Matter"; Writer, Knight Science Journalism Tracker): Yeah, you too, Ira, thanks.

FLATOW: Andrew Revkin is author of the DotEarth blog at the New York Times and senior fellow for environmental understanding at Pace University. He's also here in our studios in New York. Good to see you again.

Mr. ANDREW REVKIN (Author, DotEarth Blog, New York Times; Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding, Pace University): It's great to be here.

FLATOW: Well, let me give the audibly challenged first - Robin, what is the most surprising or unexpected science story for you this year?

Ms. LLOYD: Unexpected, huh?

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. LLOYD: Well, I guess I'll go with the Neanderthal genome decoded because for decades, there's been some debate about whether Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, shall we say, hooked up, whether there was any mingling there genetically.

And there were a lot of arguments against that and a lot of differences between these two groups of early humans and modern humans. And this new finding, Svant Paabo's finding, actually he was able to sequence the genome of Neanderthals and found that actually we have one to four percent of our DNA in common with Neanderthals if we are folks who live outside of Africa.

So that's pretty - that's evidence, yes. There was some hooking up.

Mr. RAEBURN: Some people may have more Neanderthal DNA than others. We can take that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Not going there. After the champagne we can talk about that. Robin, can you give us the name of that volcano?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LLOYD: It begins with an E.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Okay, well - that'll be close enough for all of us. Andy, did the Gulf oil spill make it to the top of your list?

Mr. REVKIN: Well, in a way, no. The story there is about risk, not about the fact that there was a lot of oil. Once you poke a hole in the floor of the ocean and there's a high-pressure reservoir there, you're going to get a lot of oil flowing.

Unidentified Panelist: Hello. (Laughing)

Mr. REVKIN: And early on - there are signs, you know, there was all this concern and back-and-forth thing in the media and among experts on whether this was truly an ecological catastrophe.

But when you look back - I touched on this in DotEarth early on - the Persian Gulf War saw the world's largest oil spill ever in the Persian Gulf, in an area with tropical reefs. And within several years, most of that had - the ecological damage there had kind of resolved.

Now - so to me, the lingering story is: Can we get big risk right? And that is just one of many examples that we still have trouble with certain kinds of management issues related to things with big consequences but that don't happen very often.

FLATOW: I noticed on your DotEarth site, speaking of the wacky weather we've had at the end of the year, people have been trying to decide: Is this global warming? Is it not global warming? Is it a sign? How do you get a cold, cold, snowy winter into a global warming scenario?

Mr. REVKIN: Well, you know, and God, this gets batted around. I did a piece two or three years ago, when there was snow in Johannesburg, "Can a Climate Campaign Survive a Cooling Test," essentially saying weather - not just weather, climate, has implicit natural variability in it on very - all kinds of time scales: years, months, decades.

And anyone who thinks there's a smooth curve into the future, which is kind of the way science kind of portrays these things with graphs, you kind of get the expectation that warming is just that. But there's a lot of wiggles on the way.

And this is with sea ice, with - well, and even with hurricanes now, there's incredible complexity to what makes the hurricane season big, bad or makes the storms hit the coast as opposed to do nothing.

We had a pretty active hurricane season, but you wouldn't know it in the United States because they all stayed out to sea this year. So if you're not attuned to those complexities within the overall span of something we call climate change, then it's hard to kind of maintain that sense of, you know, focus.

FLATOW: Let me ask you, Ron, was 2010 a big year for astronomy?

Mr. COWEN: It was in many ways. I mean, we found what we think are the most distant galaxies yet, which - you know, people often say every year or six months, we found the most distant galaxy yet, but this seems to be the limit, with the Hubble Space Telescope at least.

So until we launch Hubble's successor, and there's been a lot of delays and problems with that, these galaxies are from 13.2 billion years ago, or to put it another way about 480 million years after the Big Bang.

We found smaller and smaller planets beyond the solar system. There were hints at one point that we had found a planet that might be habitable or that at least where liquid water might be on that planet.

But then two weeks later, another group said: You know what? We don't find the little wobble in the parent star that you guys do, that says that this planet really exists. So that's up in the air.

But there's a - the Kepler space craft, which finds lots of fairly small planets by looking as they pass in front of their parent star and just blink out a tiny amount of light, there's going to be - we're looking forward actually as soon as February to them talking about a lot of Earth-like planets.

They have 706 candidates, and in February they're going to talk details about which of them may be habitable and which of them might just be maybe perhaps only twice the size of Earth or less.

FLATOW: Paul, your favorite story or something that didn't happen.

Mr. RAEBURN: I'll give you my non-stories, exactly. Here are just a couple that I found. The not-too-long-ago report of the discovery of some fossil teeth in a cave in Israel, and there were headlines all around the world, age of Homo sapiens has been doubled from about 200,000 years ago to probably 400,000 years ago, which were great stories.

Unfortunately, that's not what the paper said and not what the researchers concluded, which is unfortunate because they were terrific stories.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAEBURN: The idea was that was one of a variety of explanations that might explain what they had found.

Another one was the story on arsenic life from about a month ago, and...

FLATOW: We reported on that.

Mr. RAEBURN: And the idea there - and again, very interesting story, the idea being that certain microbes were able to use arsenic instead of phosphorous. They were related on the periodic table, so people had wondered about that but this was the first demonstration. Except that as soon as the paper was published in Science, there was a chorus of criticism from scientists of all kinds, including many with a lot of expertise in the area, many of whom posted on their blogs, and NASA responded, NASA Astrobiology Institute, which had done the study, responded by saying: Well, we don't discuss these sacred scientific issues on blogs, for heaven's sakes, no.

And one other that came to mind that actually Aleszu, one of the producers, reminded me about, was this was the year of the retraction of the 1998 Lancet study that claimed to find a problem with vaccines and autism, which in its 12 years of life unretracted helped fuel a huge controversy, probably impacted adversely the health of millions of children who didn't get vaccines, huge thing, and it took Lancet 12 years to retract it when it had been heavily criticized by others for almost all that 12 years. So...

FLATOW: Good pickup by Aleszu Bajak, our producer.

Mr. RAEBURN: Maybe Lancet will call in and explain their thinking on that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Robin, any comments on those?

Ms. LLOYD: Sure. You know, arsenic life, I have to say I'm a big proponent of the scientific process, and I still sort of accept the approach that findings need to be replicated and published in peer-reviewed journals.

And, you know, it's clear that there's some questions about the arsenic life finding, the microbe - was it sequestering arsenic, or is the arsenic actually incorporated into the DNA in a systematic way?

But, you know, I'm really interested, you know, not to completely be a NASA booster, but I am really interested to see how this plays out, as they say, in the literature, and to see, you know, what we find out with future attempts to poke holes at this, you know, systematically, you know, what scientists are going to find out.

FLATOW: Andy, did you want to jump in?

Mr. REVKIN: Yeah, well, there's some relationship between that story and what's been happening with climate, as well, where there are all these battles about whether peer review is biased or torqued toward the consensus - building and supporting a consensus.

And then there's all this questions about the Web and the world outside of the formal journals, what role does that play. And increasingly, I think you're going to see, overall, I think a beneficial mix of things. It's going to be ugly sometimes, as you saw this year in so many realms.

But I'm starting to see, even within - on DotEarth, which is just a tiny part of this actual conversation between real intellectual antagonists on points, whether it's about arsenic or about whether Antarctica was actually warming or not warming as much.

FLATOW: So you're saying that peer review is going to be a wider audience than just the peer reviewers.

Mr. REVKIN: Well, I think there's layers. Peer review is becoming a layered process more than it ever was, where it usually was behind closed doors, just happening as an idea was tested, put in a journal.

And now with the Web, it's - there's dynamic, real-time peer review, as well, and more and more, scientists are putting their ideas out in that realm simultaneously. And that, you know, I think in the long run, it's going to be okay.

FLATOW: My own one of these kinds of stories was the story this year about the bones with the scratches on them that were either created by some butchering of an animal or some crocodile teeth, which one you wanted to believe. And we did that story, and we brought on someone who was a very famous scientist who disputed this.

And one of his colleagues said that he thought the story was, it was so - I said: Why did Nature - why would Nature put this on the front cover? And he said: Akin to doing that, he says, I equate that with cold fusion. That's how bad he thought that the peer review on that was, on that kind of story.

Mr. REVKIN: Yeah, well, you know, I mean, I think it's true of, you know, some of these things. People find something or think they found something, and they get excited.

You know, scientists, we occasionally remember, are human beings, too. And they get excited, and it's tempting to overstate it. But that's why we need a system to watch that.

FLATOW: All right, and we'll be back with our own system to watch what went on this year. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Talking about this year's review of science stories with Ron Cowen, Robin Lloyd, Paul Raeburn and Andrew Revkin. You can also tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. What do you think was the biggest science story of the year? Maybe we missed one, and you think it should be included. Let us know. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. We're talking this hour about the top stories of 2010 with my guests: Ron Cowen, astronomy writer for Science News at sciencenews.org; Robin Lloyd, news editor online for Scientific American here in New York; Paul Raeburn, biology and medical writer for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at MIT, also author of the forthcoming book "Why Fathers Matter"; Andrew Revkin, author of the DotEarth blog at the New York Times and senior fellow for environmental understanding at Pace University.

Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Robin, Would WikiLeaks fit into this somehow? As a science story, as maybe a technology story? Andy's lighting up on this one. I mean, this is - it's sort of peer review, isn't it, in a certain way.

Ms. LLOYD: WikiLeaks is huge because it calls into question, you know, the political sphere, the technology sphere, the media sphere. I mean, there's questions about, you know, whether journalists should even legally have access to the cables, to the material that WikiLeaks is releasing.

So I don't think anybody really knows exactly what sense to make of this yet. So yeah, it was on our Scientific American top 10 stories list for this year.

FLATOW: Andy?

Mr. REVKIN: Well, that also related to Climategate a year ago, which was about information that was presumed confidential but that ended up in the glare of public light. And what do you do journalistically?

In my initial reporting on that, I didn't - the lawyers at the time said you can't, you shouldn't, until we know the provenance of this stuff, you shouldn't post the actual content of these emails.

Of course, the Times did publish the WikiLeaks information so - and that got a lot of people blogging about the Times having a double standard. So it's getting to be hard to figure out when something is appropriately public and not.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones. Let's go Andrew(ph) in Twin Cities. Hi, Andrew.

ANDREW (Caller): Hi, China and its rare earth.

FLATOW: Ah, in fact, that - it owns, like, 97 percent of all the rare earth materials.

ANDREW: Yes.

FLATOW: That's kind of important, isn't it, Andrew?

ANDREW: Yes, kind of important.

FLATOW: All right, big story. Gentlemen, lady, do you agree?

Mr. REVKIN: Well, one element there, one thing I did hear is that they're not -they're the owner of the known deposits. But what I was told was that long ago, the United States has curtailed mining in so many different places that - where there probably are similar deposits of these materials, that that's part of the issue, as well.

FLATOW: Canada.

Mr. REVKIN: We just haven't started looking.

Unidentified Panelist: And now there's talk in the U.S. of re-opening some of those mines, at whatever environmental cost, because of that problem.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. More suggestions. Let's go to William(ph) in Norfolk, Virginia. Hi, William.

WILLIAM (Caller): How are you doing, Ira?

FLATOW: Hey there.

WILLIAM: All right. There were two stories that I thought held particular significance relative to science this year, and they were the paper battery and the super-thin carbon.

FLATOW: Graphene.

WILLIAM: Yes.

FLATOW: Graphene, interesting, yeah. All right, that's a good topic, thanks a lot. Are you familiar with - let me ask Robin, are you familiar with graphene?

Ms. LLOYD: Yeah, sure. I mean, the discovery was honored this year. It got the Nobel Prize - for physics or chemistry? They often overlap. It's hard to tell why they chose to honor it in one category or the other.

But at any rate, the discovery, though, was a few, several years ago, right? So it's been known to be around. And, of course, it's exciting that fairly young scientists, relative to who usually gets a Nobel, were recognized for this work fairly soon.

FLATOW: This is this really thin layer of graphite, right? It's a sheet.

Ms. LLOYD: Yeah, what is it? One atom thick?

FLATOW: One atom thick, yeah. Let's go back to my other guests. Ron, what other astronomy stories this year?

Mr. COWEN: Yeah, there were a few others that I thought were pretty neat. One was just the fact, you know, we think we know everything or a lot about our own galaxy, the Milky Way. But it was discovered that the Milky Way is blowing giant bubbles, each the size of a small galaxy.

One is blowing out just above the flat plane of our galaxy and one below. So each one is about 25,000 light-years in diameter, and we think the black hole, the super-massive black hole at the center of our galaxy, is doing that.

So I just thought - I mean, no one expected to see a new structure. You can only see it in gamma rays, to be fair. So - but it is something brand new.

FLATOW: What about this dark flow that people were talking about, that as opposed to being matter being uniformly distributed throughout the universe, it appears that there's a space where it's like a highway for the matter is flowing?

Mr. COWEN: I'm not sure I'm familiar with that story.

FLATOW: This is a theory that came out earlier this year.

Mr. COWEN: Okay.

FLATOW: And it basically said there's - we know we've got dark energy, we know we've got dark matter, and now there's a dark flow where this matter seems to be flowing in some mysterious direction for some reason.

It was, you know, it was noticed by a few different people. So we'll have to keep our eye on it.

Mr. COWEN: Okay. I mean, one thing that I thought just was neat was that, I mean, the whole theory of cosmology, that the universe started in a tiny fraction of a second, it inflated to something from subatomic to the size to a soccer ball.

We have all this invisible material, we think, dark matter that we think makes up 80 percent of the mass of the universe. And then this stuff called dark energy, which is the stuff which somehow is accelerating the expansion of the universe, just when you'd think that it would be slowing down due to all the gravity in it, that that theory seems to be more and more corroborated.

We had the Planck mission, which looks at the ancient light called the cosmic microwave background, from the early universe. And we had WMAP, a satellite that's been around for a while, and just the patterns in this light just verifying more and more that this kind of crazy, bizarre, some people call it preposterous universe actually exists.

FLATOW: Did you want to - Paul?

Mr. RAEBURN: I wanted to maybe change gears a bit.

FLATOW: Sure.

Mr. RAEBURN: We talk about the top stories. One thing we don't do quite as often on these year-end discussions is talk about some of the top reporters, and I have a candidate I'd like to mention, a fellow by the name of John Fauber at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

I don't know him. I've interviewed him briefly for the Science Journalism Tracker, where I've posted several things about his work. He's sort of an investigative madman, which I hope he will take in the right spirit.

Every month or two, he comes out with a story on such things as conflicts of interest. He's looked at spinal implants, you know, spinal fusions, jaw implants, a variety of things. And just about every case, he finds out that some researchers found much better results than others, and by -coincidentally, those who found better research or found better results were on the payroll of the company involved. Now, he's just done this over and over again.

FLATOW: I'm shocked.

Mr. RAEBURN: It's - really. You know, but he's got it laid out, documented, and just a shout-out to John Fauber for doing the kind of investigative reporting that I wish I was doing more of and we could all do a lot more of.

FLATOW: Well - Andy, did you...?

Mr. REVKIN: Well, that reminds me. You know, on the good news front here, in terms of science communication, I was at the climate talks in Cancun for a week but not so much to cover the talks, which were pretty darn inconsequential, but to work with a group of 36 journalists who came there from all around the world, from Katmandu and from Kenya.

And they're young environmental journalists who, in this age of retracting sort of journalism, or - it gave me a great sense that there's a huge amount of growth going on, especially in developing countries.

So it's great to hear - and actually, there was a guy named Sam Adams(ph), an environment reporter, who was there, as well. So there's still life in this thing called science journalism, which is fun.

FLATOW: Do you find that, Paul, as someone who tracks science journalists and stories?

Mr. RAEBURN: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, I don't have all the numbers in front of me here, but there have been a variety of things. There are things like AOL's Patch, which are local news sites, a lot of online - all the action, obviously, is online. But there have been a number of new jobs, some of them six-figure jobs, very nice...

Unidentified Panelist: Where, where, where?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAEBURN: Yeah, exactly, yeah. So there's a lot happening. If you look at newspapers, you get one view. If you look at the broader journalism world, I think it's very exciting.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's see if we can get a couple more phone calls. Phil(ph) in Burke, South Dakota. Hi, Phil.

PHIL (Caller): Yeah, hi there.

FLATOW: Hi there.

PHIL: I'd like to talk about, I think, an underreported story from this year, and that has to do with the cancelation at NASA of a major project, and I'm talking about the SIM space observatory, it's S-I-M, and it was designed to find Earth-sized planets around nearby stars.

It's been going on for about 10 years, and NASA - actually, today is the last day of the project. They have been shutting it down for the last few months.

Unlike Kepler, Kepler will find planets, Earth planets that are about 2,000 light years away, SIM would have found them within about 10 or 20 light years away, which meant that other missions after SIM could, you know, study them a lot more easily than something that's much more distant.

So NASA's canceling it, and I have not seen any press coverage of this whatsoever.

FLATOW: Well, let me ask Ron Cowen. Ron?

Mr. COWEN: Well, no, that's true. And NASA is actually in trouble in a lot of ways. I mean, there is an idea to come back with something called SIM-Lite, which would be a smaller version of that mission. But you're right. It is a loss.

And what's going on now, too, though, in NASA is that the James Webb Space Telescope, which is the successor to Hubble, is now - it's been going up and up in its cost, and the most recent figures are it's going to cost 6.5 billion, which is 1.5 billion more than it supposedly cost a year ago.

No one knows where the money is going to come from, but people are very worried that a lot more missions will - that have been proposed will be canceled or just will be delayed for years and years.

NASA itself is going through a lot of painful - I would call it misdirection. I mean, we're not going back to the moon as George Bush had proposed, and he didn't really give a lot of details at all when he said that.

But Obama is saying, okay, we'll go to an asteroid but it won't be till 2025, and we don't have a new space transportation vehicle. There won't be one in space from the U.S. at least for another three years. We're going to rely more on commercial vendors and, you know, to take us into space and don't know how that's going to shape up. But NASA is really - a lot of new science projects I think are not going to happen that have been proposed.

FLATOW: Andy, did you want to say something?

Mr. REVKIN: Yeah. Unfortunately, we've swung from the good news...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REVKIN: ...to the bad news.

Mr. RAEBURN: Didn't take long.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REVKIN: No. The budget issues are just huge for science in areas that might really matter. The other thing, just before the holidays, one of the last things the House did, was they killed the funding for Obama's innovation hubs for energy. They'd only approved three out of eight. This is in an arena that everyone around the world, whether you are convinced global warming is a problem or not, every - virtually everyone studying energy knows the world does not have the choices it needs to have a smooth ride the next 50 years.

And these initiatives were the first kind of effort to have a sustained new push in areas on the frontiers of science that matters, and that money is not going to be there.

So I was just with Nate Lewis at one of the - who runs the one on artificial photosynthesis out at Caltech, and I haven't heard from him lately. I hope he didn't jump off a high place or something.

FLATOW: It sounds like it's just going to get worse in the new Congress.

Mr. REVKIN: Yeah. There will be nothing of any note and...

FLATOW: Is science going to be on trial, do you think in this new Congress?

Mr. REVKIN: Well, this is - my sense is the politics there and, of course, politics is what makes things happen in Washington, is still kind of mixed enough. I don't think you're going to see real inquisition-style hearings - I may be wrong - because, you know, everyone's already gearing up for 2012, and you don't want to look extremist in a presidential cycle when you need to look moderate so...

FLATOW: We don't know yet what's the right way, given what happened...

Mr. REVKIN: Well...

FLATOW: ...with the Tea Party in the last cycle.

Mr. REVKIN: That's right. So, again, no one knows. It's possible. Let's put it that way, but I think it would be - it would backfire.

FLATOW: Uh-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number.

Robin, you want to jump in with any other suggestion?

Ms. LLOYD: Yes. Sure.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

Ms. LLOYD: Paul had just mentioned the developing world and the growth of science journalism there, and there was a finding earlier this year - a published finding - that was really important for cutting back on the spread of HIV, especially in Africa, heterosexual transmission, and it was a finding that a vaginal gel that can be self-applied prior to intercourse can be effective at preventing or cutting down, dramatically, your risk of heterosexual transmission.

It's an antimicrobial gel, and that was kind of a big deal, that was a very positive finding, a very positive, you know, biomedical finding for a real intractable disease that we all know a lot about; especially in Africa, it's been a big killer. So I thought that was important, and, you know, we'll see if it can be replicated and if it can be set up in a couple of years as actually available for folks at an affordable level, but it's a big deal.

Mr. RAEBURN: That was actually...

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY on NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, interrupting Paul Raeburn.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: As I do somebody every week - it wouldn't be this program. Go ahead.

Mr. RAEBURN: Well, I'm just following on what Robin said. There was another study shortly after that, that looked - a large-scale study of men and actually transgendered women who have sex with men - and found a prophylactic. A drug called Truvada, which is a combination of a couple of things, sharply reduced the number of new AIDS cases in those who had measurable levels of Truvada in their blood, meaning they adhered to the protocol. The efficacy was 92 percent in preventing infections.

So it was - that's good news for this year on the AIDS front. Some of the best news in the course of the epidemic, I would say.

FLATOW: Uh-hmm. And we have a tweet that's coming in, saying, from Calmerofchaos(ph) says, well, discussing past year would appreciate insight on emerging sci. stories that will be significant in 2011 or soon - in parenthesis, crystal ball. Andy, you got a crystal ball on this?

Mr. REVKIN: Well, it's more technology than science. I'm incredibly excited about another trend in developing countries. You know, the focus of Dot Earth is how do we head toward roughly nine billion people without totally screwing up.

And I look at the explosive growth of telecommunications in poor places, and it's linking minds; and in some cases, classrooms, in ways that have - can really fast-forward innovation.

There's an interesting book this year called "Rational Optimist" from a British science writer, Matt Ridley, that kind of talked about how - the whole nature of why humans have this ability to kind of innovate our way out of big jams, as he put it, ideas have sex. And the more people are kind of talking to each other, the more that happens.

So as seen that you look - go to itu.int, that's the website of the International Telecommunications Union, and there's this growing bubble of total mobile phone use and a big - the vast majority of it is in developing countries. So as they get wired more, there will be much - they will be fast-forwarding past some of the logjams I think that we face. And, by the way, you don't have to be literate so they can fast-forward even past literacy. I think it's exciting.

FLATOW: And you now have these wind-up generators and things...

Mr. REVKIN: Right.

FLATOW: ...that you can charge your cell phone.

Mr. REVKIN: Small solar panel.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. RAEBURN: Ira, two stories come to mind for me in 2011. One is dark matter. There is an experiment near Rome, beneath the ground, called XENON100 that looks for dark matter particles. They're going to have an unveiling, as they call it, of their data sometime early next year, and they may just perhaps find a certain signal that might be an indication of dark matter.

Also in - related to dark matter in space, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope is looking for signs of dark matter where dark matter particles would show themselves when they annihilate and emit these very high-energy gamma rays. And there's - probably, the Fermi people are going to come out with something and say, yes, there is an excess or there isn't an excess in our own Milky Way.

And then, something I just mentioned briefly already before, that the Kepler spacecraft is going to - probably in February, talk about a bunch of what we call super-Earths, finding planets that are only a few times mass of Earth.

FLATOW: All right, we're going to take a break, come back, talk about some more about science in the news, science coming up, perhaps looking into our crystal ball. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. We'll get to talk about some more of the science stories, maybe about that Craig Venter deal with his synthetic life. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the top science stories of 2010 with Ron Cowen, Robin Lloyd, Paul Raeburn and Andrew Revkin. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. And one of the major stories that I sort of hinted at at the break was Craig Venter's synthetic life. Did you want to talk about that, Andy?

Mr. REVKIN: Yeah. Well, there's so many aspects of this that are interesting. One is that it's happening - this is the idea of basically programming a computer, building your own life form from scratch with, through the genetic material. And, you know, it's something that's been edged toward for many years in so many different ways. There's a couple of interesting things. This is happening mainly in a commercial arena...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. REVKIN: ...and so the government, the Obama administration, had a commission that just looked at it. How do we regulate this in a way that fosters the innovation without leading to Franken - the next Franken-whatever...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. REVKIN: ...Franken-fill-in-the-gap. But the consequences of being able to do this, the potential for creating oil, you know, some kind of manufactured fuel, foods, you know, engineered foods from the get-go, there's huge potential but lots of questions.

FLATOW: Yeah. That was a big story.

Mr. REVKIN: Yeah. It was very interesting, and they - you know, the idea was to take a chromosome from one kind of bacteria and put it into another kind, and they did this for I think an extended period, and they went ahead and made the transfer and nothing happened. The trick was how do you get the thing to boot up...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. REVKIN: ...and use the new DNA, and the details are arcane but they managed to solve that problem. Now, they didn't create a new chromosome from scratch and develop a sequence on their own. They sort of Xeroxed a chromosome and put it in another bacterium, but I think it's a hugely important step for biology, and it's just one of those stories that's just cool. You know, it's just a great story.

FLATOW: I think it's a great story.

Mr. REVKIN: Yeah.

FLATOW: One of the cool ongoing stories about all this chromosome work is that, you know, the idea that junk DNA is really junk. I mean, why would we have junk DNA and we're discovering it really does stuff. Right?

Mr. REVKIN: Yeah. I saw somebody refer to it as dark DNA, akin to dark matter.

FLATOW: That's right.

Mr. REVKIN: You know, suddenly, it's not so dark. You know, in reference to the question about predicting, I mean, the only area where I feel comfortable predicting is in genomics and genetics, and the prediction is it's always going to move more quickly than anything you can predict.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. REVKIN: I mean, it's amazing what's happening. The sequencing is getting faster and cheaper, and the possibilities are limitless. It's fun to cover.

FLATOW: Robin Lloyd, we saw some of the first electric cars, this year, coming out.

Ms. LLOYD: Yeah.

FLATOW: Has that age - has it arrived? Is it legitimate now?

Ms. LLOYD: Sure, it's legitimate.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. LLOYD: Yeah. It's legitimate. I mean, the question is going to be the price points in terms of adoption. Are people willing to plunk down - I think it's up to 30,000 - around 30,000 for the Nissan Leaf and 40,000 for the Chevy Volt.

FLATOW: But you get all those rebates.

Ms. LLOYD: Yeah. There's some rebates that will mitigate those costs, but it's still a little more than people are used to paying, especially for something that feels kind of experimental. And then there's also the infrastructure that we need for the charging stations - not just in our homes. That should be pretty easy, but, you know, what we really want are these really high-speed - one of these 440-volt charging stations that could be available, you know, in your supermarket parking lot. So, you know, we're waiting for that to happen. But I think there's a lot of excitement among consumers for these vehicles. I mean, what, the first few thousands that were made available by those two manufacturers were sold out before they even arrived on lots.

FLATOW: Yeah. You know, if you go to Minnesota or Alaska, they do have those plugs in those parking lots already...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: ...for a different reason. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Russell in Atlantic City. Hi, Russell.

RUSSELL (Caller): Hey, there.

FLATOW: Hey, there.

RUSSELL: I love this show. This is the best show ever.

FLATOW: Thank you.

RUSSELL: I listen to it all the time. I just wanted to say that I know you're getting to the Hadron accelerator...

FLATOW: Right.

RUSSELL: ...but earlier this year, you guys covered a story where they were doing some maintenance work on the accelerator, and one of the guys was eating a sandwich and they said a breadcrumb...

FLATOW: That's right.

RUSSELL: ...fell down in...

FLATOW: The baguette that closed down...

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: ...the Hadron accelerator. Robin, do you remember that?

Unidentified Panelist: Particle physics.

Ms. LLOYD: Yeah. I'm still very optimistic.

FLATOW: Thanks, Russell.

Ms. LLOYD: You were talking about what to look forward to...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. LLOYD: ...in 2011, and I have to say I can't help but get really excited about the potential for the detector at the Large Hadron Collider to find evidence of either the Higgs boson particle, which may be responsible for conferring mass, basically, upon particles that we are already detecting, or something that could explain, as we were talking about, dark matter. We still don't really know what dark matter is, and there's a lot of prominent physicists who are saying, you know, this LHC, the Large Hadron Collider, could be the thing - and now that it's, you know, up and running and it's fairly stable, it seems - could be the thing that really can find some resolution to these longstanding mysteries.

Mr. REVKIN: Yeah. I agree with that. And it's finally running - I mean, it's running at half its speed. But that's still a feat at, each of the two proton beams has 3.5 trillion electron volts. It's actually supposed to operate at double that, but it won't do so until 2013. But, yeah, this year, I agree, is -another thing to look forward to is finding out, you know, what will the Large Hadron Collider see. I agree.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I always find it - that there - when I interview physicists about the LHC and the Higgs boson, there are equal number of physicists who rather not find anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Be just as happy not to find the Higgs boson because the fun is in the hunt.

Mr. RAEBURN: Right. Right.

FLATOW: Right?

Mr. REVKIN: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: And when that's over, you got to think of something else...

Mr. RAEBURN: You know, it's interesting. One of the few things I remember from my physics undergraduate days is that the trick in the physics lab was getting the darn thing to work. You know, you had to get this work once, so you get some data, you passed the class. And this is on a vast, like, a larger scale. But that's the trick. You know, it takes many, many years to get it to go, and then things start to pour out.

FLATOW: Aaron in Nashville, North Carolina. Hey, Aaron.

AARON (Caller): Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

AARON: Thank you for taking my call. I'm a longtime fan.

FLATOW: Thank you. Go ahead.

AARON: All right. So my favorite story of the year. I was, frankly, pretty surprised to learn, in a clinical trial published a few months ago, that we're now able to extend the survival of patients at high risk for lung cancer by screening it - screening them with CT scans.

FLATOW: Hmm. Let's see if any of our commentators is familiar with that story. Andy, yeah.

Mr. REVKIN: I remember reading - well, I remember reading about the paper and it may be true in that clinical, very precise sense. But in other fields, there's been this issue with too much - kind of too much scanning and probing...

FLATOW: Well, let's get right into another scanning story that was sort of on the peripheral this year, and that was the airport scanners.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: How could that not...

Mr. REVKIN: Oh god.

FLATOW: Right. It was so big. We're in the forest. We don't see the trees on that one, right?

Mr. REVKIN: Right. Right.

FLATOW: And people were worried about the health effects of going through those scanners or whatever it is. Some of them give off smalls - small amounts of X-rays. Some of them give out that microwave radiation.

Mr. RAEBURN: Well, you know, there's another analogy between the two things, too, which is that in both cases, the airport and cancer, people are looking at very, very high-tech solutions, which, you know, which sometimes provide the answer. Sometimes old-fashioned things work even better.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Robin, you have any comment on that?

Ms. LLOYD: Yeah. I mean, that CT scan may be very effective, I'd suspect, at detecting tumors earlier than we have before. I think that's the finding. And, you know, then there's the comparable effectiveness issue, which is what, I think, Paul was talking about. Does this really - you know, are we going to be able to afford this on a large scale, to screen the population that's at risk for lung cancer? Are there other ways that are more effective that are going to - you know, are there other kinds of public health and scanning approaches or other kinds of non-high-tech approaches that are going to be - you know, actually save more lives?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's see if we can get some more people asking what's their story. Let's go to Susan in Washington. Hi, Susan.

Ms. SUSAN McGINNIS (Managing Editor and News Anchor, "Energy Now"): Hey and thanks for taking my call. Andrew, I wanted to say hi to you because I'm Susan McGinnis from Energy Now. We've had you on our show a couple of times.

Mr. REVKIN: Hey. It's good to hear you.

Ms. McGINNIS: I just want to mention that one phenomenon is nuclear fusion as a possible source of commercial energy is always, always thought of as being, you know, a decade or more away. But this year, there was an agreement among about a dozen countries to fund and construct something called the ITER facility, I-T-E-R, in the south of France. And this is the first facility that's actually most likely, I guess, to do nuclear fusion and actually bring it closer to commercial scale, and that the timeline after this - if this facility is successful, will be then to build an actual power plant that will have nuclear fusion providing real electricity.

FLATOW: And which - and what method would it use to make the fusion happen?

Ms. McGINNIS: What method would it use?

FLATOW: Is it laser beams, magnetic confinement?

Ms. McGINNIS: No. It's the plasma. It's the - you know, how the plasma and the magnets...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. McGINNIS: ...bring the molecules together.

FLATOW: Sort of like the Tokamak.

Ms. McGINNIS: Correct.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. McGINNIS: But I don't think it's the Tokamak, yeah.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling.

Ms. McGINNIS: Thanks.

FLATOW: I don't care. I still think fusion is always 30 years away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RAEBURN: One thing that's interesting, though, I always said, it does -that an arena where international cooperation is vital.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. RAEBURN: And there are many chunks of the energy problem that are still being cast as a national imperative. In fact, Steve Chu, the energy secretary, got in trouble, sort of, in Washington, when he tried to cast - the reason we should push on green energy is because China has made this our Sputnik moment for energy, when there are others who say, that's actually the worst possible way to look at this.

We're never going to out-manufacture windmills in comparison to China. But we could do some cooperative work with them to bring the best of the United States, which is this innovative capacity with China's manufacturing skills and start to do more international cooperation. So energy is an arena where, if you don't have international cooperation, you're probably not going to have big breakthroughs.

FLATOW: So that's our competitive advantage...

Mr. RAEBURN: Well...

FLATOW: ...on the manufacturing process that the Chinese have, that...

Mr. RAEBURN: Well, they have the manufacturing...

FLATOW: Yeah, right.

Mr. RAEBURN: ...advantage. We have the intellectual - still have the intellectual firepower. So how do you mesh those in a way that doesn't exist in our commercial realm...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. RAEBURN: ...where intellectual property matters. There's some tough questions there, but cooperation is vital. There have been some interesting studies about that.

FLATOW: In the few minutes we have left, I think we can - you know, we're talking about technology and information. I think the iPad has to be brought up as an incredible year, right? Andrew, wouldn't you believe that is a changing...

Mr. REVKIN: I haven't played with one yet.

FLATOW: You haven't played...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REVKIN: No. I have a MacBook.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REVKIN: Yeah. I think they are - the personal tech things, all the things, are incredibly important because they may be - you know, in some sense, they're incremental. We can sort of see what's coming. But the things that are going to affect our lives, you know, every day, all the time, minute by minute some times, much more so than a lot of these other things we've been talking about, and really have - imagine, you know, not too long ago, we didn't have email. How did we survive?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Wow.

Mr. REVKIN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Those bells didn't go off so often.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. REVKIN: That's right.

FLATOW: Robin or Ron, do you have any comment on - I mean, we are in the age of this new technology and tablets and things like that.

Mr. COWEN: Mm-hmm. I would just say that - and maybe this is sort of obvious -that, you know, there can be a tendency among reporters. You know, you see something on an email or Twitter, oh my god, I better write about it. And you still, of course, have to balance that with thoroughly checking out the story. Am I being hoodwinked? Is this too much hype? I mean, I think the electronics are great, but it also - it just increases the amount of hype that is being thrown at you as well. So I just wanted to say that.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to have to stop it here and save it for next year. So we'll come back and see how wrong we were next year. I want to thank my guests. Robin Lloyd who is a news editor online for Scientific American, Ron Cowen, astronomy writer for Science News at sciencenews.org, Paul Raeburn, biology medical writer for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at MIT, also author of the forthcoming book "Why Fathers Matter." Do we know when that's coming out yet?

Mr. RAEBURN: Father's Day 2012, we hope, if the author gets his act together.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Okay. We'll let you go home then. Andrew Revkin, author of DotEarth blog at New York Times and senior fellow for environmental understanding at Pace University. Thank you all for being here with us.

Mr. REVKIN: Happy New Year, everyone.

FLATOW: Happy New Year to all of you.

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